Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Tuesday Night in Greenwich Village: The Washington Square Music Festival presents Viennese Chamber Music at St. Joseph's Church

On this oppressively hot and steamy evening, we got a little relief and some beautiful music in the somewhat cooler whiteness of the balcony at the Church of St. Joseph on Sixth Avenue and Washington Place in Greenwich Village, where we attended a concert of Viennese chamber music by the chamber ensemble of the Washington Square Music Festival, held this month as usual for the 54th year.
The evening, a salute to the Earle K. and Katherine F. Moore Foundation, turned out to be a wonderful respite. Unequipped as we are to discuss the concert with the kind of critical vocabulary, we here rely on Allen Kozinn, the ace New York Times critic who was also in attendance:
The decision to perform indoors made sense on Tuesday evening, when the program at hand was Viennese chamber music. In the park it would have been amplified to compete with the hefty layer of ambient noise, and that would have robbed the three works — and especially the last, Schubert’s String Quintet, in a luminous performance — of much of their inherent warmth. So instead of a park concert, with its unavoidable compromises (and humidity to boot), listeners had the benefit of a finely wrought evening of chamber music. 

The Festival Chamber Ensemble, with David Oei at the piano, began with something of a footnote, the single surviving (and perhaps only completed) movement of Mahler’s A minor Piano Quartet (1876). Mahler was a 16-year-old conservatory student when he wrote this steamy piece, but there is promise in its bittersweet string writing (though less in its chunky, chordal piano part), and if nothing else, it shows a full command of Brahmsian conventions. The musicians played it with intensity and sweep, as if it were top-drawer Mahler, and you could occasionally catch a glimmer of emotional profundity. 
The program’s centerpiece was Schoenberg’s setting of Byron’s “Ode to Napoleon” (1942), the composer’s thinly veiled indictment of Hitler. Lutz Rath, the festival’s music director and one of its cellists, left his instrument aside to give a dramatic, tightly focused reading of the poem, and if the strings sounded shrill and the piano brittle at first, the brash timbres seemed to suit the work’s spirit. In any case, the ensemble produced a more rounded but no less driven tone once the narration began.

Many chamber music fans regard the Schubert quintet as the most exquisite work in the classical canon, and even those with different favorites — the two Brahms sextets and Mozart’s Divertimento in E flat (K. 563) give it a run for the title — list it among the top five. The festival players — Eriko Sato and Leonid Yanovskiy, violinists; Veronica Salas, violist; Mr. Rath and Amy Kang, cellists — treated it royally, with a sumptuous, vibrato-rich tone and a kind of energy that made its fast movements dance.
We are very grateful we went because we had a nice evening away from the maddening heat (okay, it was pretty warm inside the church too) and because we agree with everything Mr. Kozinn said.

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